Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Slow Steady Shift...Left. (part one)

This is going to be a multiple part post. I'll try to remember to link back to the others in each one. I'll also label each one as "shifting left" so you should be able to search for them. K, here goes.

I think I've been on a steady political shift from right to left on most fronts for an awfully long time. I remember quite clearly that in high school I considered myself a very devout christian. As expected, I supported most right-winged views. I was a death penalty supporter. I looked down on people that lived on welfare. I would very likely have physically assaulted someone that burned a flag in front of me. I felt no pity for criminals. I didn't feel like a moron when I made comments about "bleeding heart liberals." I actually believed, because of what I had been taught by my elders, that teachers, professors, and intellectuals in general happened to be mostly liberal simply because they were somehow brainwashed into believing those things. I'm going to make this a multi-part post. I think I'll separate it into beliefs that have changed from then to now but that's not really what's happened. What's happened would be more accurately described as a change in my thinking process. More below the fold.

So, for part one, I guess I'll write about the change in my thinking process. Let me try to explain the way in which I viewed the world before science became such a big part of my life and why. I, like everyone else, was raised with a number of beliefs that weren't really verified in any way. You just believed things because that's how you were taught things were. Let me start with a childhood example. The Tooth Fairy will come in the night and take your tooth out from under your pillow in exchange for money. As you will agree, there is no reasonable explanation for the Tooth Fairy. Well, money does appear under your pillow if you leave a tooth there. That is evidence at some level. OK, now a little more grown up example. I could throw out examples like jesus being the son of god, or prayer being an effective medicine but I'm going to start with something a bit more basic, a wives' tale.

Here's a common wive's tale that we've all heard and many of you likely believe. If you go outside in the cold, especially with a wet head, you'll get pneumonia. I've chosen this example because I heard it as a child and I still hear it now. Educated adults, people that have graduated high school, some that have graduated college, still believe that being outside in the cold somehow increases our chances of contracting pneumonia (or influenza, or strep-throat, or the common cold). Why?

Here's where the thought process comes in. Many people, myself included until I discovered the tools of science, believe things without skepticism until something smacks them in the face and says, "Hey! Asshole! This is not true! Now wake the fuck up and look around a bit alright mate!? (Yes, sometimes that something is a foul-mouthed Aussie). But seriously, lots of folks (they tend to call themselves conservatives) just hold on to a belief until something proves it wrong. Often this is a fine way to think. You can't question everything in life. You just have to trust the people around you. Parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and leaders are usually people that have shown themselves to be trustworthy. Therefore, we trust the beliefs that they pass on to us. Like I said, often this is just fine. If your mother says, "Don't eat this, it's poison," it's not a bad idea to listen. If she's right, you'll live. If she's wrong, you'll still live. Super. Right?

What about when your mom says the stars all revolve around the earth? It's not physically harmful. But it is damaging. Don't believe me? Try adding to that a belief that humans are 6,000 years old, Noah's flood made the Grand Canyon, and dinosaurs never existed. Now, take that bag full of bullshit and pass a science test with it. Maybe you think that's not all that damaging either. How about a belief that women are not as intelligent as men? It's still around and it's bullshit, just like it always was. That belief persisted because people just believed what their elders taught them even when evidence to the contrary was thrown in their faces.

So here's the real problem with this type of conservative thought process. We lie to ourselves. Instead of confronting a belief when the tools are available to test it, people tend to just stick with it because it's comfortable. If you are too comfortable with your ideas, you're not going to be willing to change them. This seems to result in a dishonest form of intellectual inquiry. Instead of asking honest questions about the world and then looking for evidence, we start with an idea and look for confirmation. This is what fuels the imaginary evolution vs. creation debate. There is no debate, not among scientists. The people that don't understand evolution aren't even trying. All they look for is some little hole in the theory that will allow them to confirm their pre-existing belief in creation.

Now, how has my thought process changed? Since that is supposed to be the point of this rambling, incoherent, pile of a post. Here's where science really comes in. The scientific process requires that to the extent possible one should approach every single problem without bias. Obviously, this is not possible in an absolute sense. However, simply being aware of your bias can really change how you are able to think about a problem. Try it some time. It becomes more and more difficult the more things are ingrained into your life. Ask yourself this question: How does phosphorus affect the trophic state of a lake? If you have no idea what that means, you probably start with very little bias when you begin looking for an answer. I try to approach every question that's important to me in this way. Now, the scientific process comes in again. This is where it gets a little more difficult. The only evidence you're allowed to use is statistically significant evidence. This includes established facts and known processes. What it doesn't include is hunches, feelings, anecdotal evidence, and "faith." Sorry, that's just the way it works. Faith is the belief in something in spite of the evidence, and that's just not allowed in science.

Here is a question that's a little more difficult to approach without bias. Is abortion always immoral? My next post in this series is going to explore this question a little more deeply. I'd love to have some comments. So, if you're reading this, try to approach this question anew. Try to answer it openly and honestly and base your decision on something a little more thoughtful than "the bible says so."


MitchW said...

Is abortion always immoral? Short answer from me: No. Longer answer? Agreed upon definitions of morality and immorality would be prerequisites. I would probably argue that the world (both human society and the planet itself) would have been better off if a few people never existed (obvious choices: Hitler, James Earl Ray, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Milosevic, Bin Laden, Tim McVeigh (sp?), and whatever group of genius bastards founded Islam. In Utopia, should they have been nixed in-utero? Yeah. But in reality, we have no way of knowing if the bundle of joy is going to be evil or good. So, maybe we go with the idea that cells are cells, and a group of cells aren't a person until that group of cells could survive without a biological attachment to a mother. (Because I'd really hate to think I was committing genocide if I rub one out every once in a while...)
My mind is still pretty open on this, so I'm looking forward to what you've got to say

Shane said...

Interesting. I won't dig into my views until my official post but here are some points to ponder. First, I think in this context it would be up to you to define and defend your morals. Perhaps I should have used the word ethical. That's more of a universal set of rules, rather than those that we happen to agree on.

Second, is it the biological attachment that really defines us as human or non-human? What about when the day comes that we can actually have "test-tube" babies. How do we decide then?

Maybe you could look at it this way. Decide just what it is that makes human life so damned precious in the first place and go from there.

MitchW said...

Maybe I'll try it this way: What makes human life so damned precious? I'm almost inclined to go on the record that it's relationships, or the potential contacts with other people that make human life precious (or despicable, as I haven't shifted left much.)
A 4 year old child with terminal brain cancer (even if it is God's Will) is much more depressing to me than a 40 year old man or woman with the same diagnosis. Why? Maybe because that child hasn't done a single malicious act in his entire life. Or maybe there's hope that the child will grow up and accomplish something great for the rest of humanity.
So maybe there's an innocence consideration to my valuation of human life? I'll shut up now...

Shane said...

Well, a 1 day old child has far fewer relationships than a 20 year old serial killer. Does that make the child's life worth less?

I think I was unclear when I asked what makes human life so precious. What I meant was, why is human life so much more valuable than say, a chimpanzee's life? In other words, what is it about the general value of human life that causes this discussion in the first place? No one (almost no one) gets upset when a dog, cat, bonobo, minnow, or insect is aborted. Something must be different about humans. The obvious answer is that "we" are humans and that's why human life is precious to us. But "we" are also apes, and mammals, and vertebrates. We don't bother to worry about them, so something must be special. Clear as mud? Good.

MitchW said...

I think there's a strong natural drive to continue your genetic sequencing, and more of an apathetic view towards other species or individuals pursuit of the same goal. It probably applies to most life forms -- its why I think my kid is more precious than your kid, why the female dog that would sacrifice her life for your kid would attack that same kid for getting too close to her puppies, why the male grizzly kills other bear cubs, why family is typically closer than friends. And the relationship thing comes in to justify why I spend enough money per month feeding my dog to feed probably 3 kids in Africa for the same time. My kid is happy to see his dog, and as depressing as it is to write this, thats why 60 bucks a month feeds a dog rather than 3 innocent children that had the misfortune of being born someplace else.
Synopsis: People (and animals) are logically inclined to continue their genes, and I think evolution tends to favor those individuals that provide the best care to their descendants.
After taking care of descendants is taken care of, species are next best served by taking assisting other individuals of their species whose well-being may have an impact on the well-being of their descendents. (The herd thing -- one cow elk sees an approaching predator, warns the other elk and the whole community escapes the predator, rather than the cow and her calf just sneak away unnoticed, all non-chalant. The cow knows its in her calf's favor to have multiple eyes and noses scanning for danger. But if push comes to shove, she would gladly sacrifice a different calf so that hers could escape.)
So what I'm trying to say is that I don't see any moral problem with a great white shark eating a surfer that I don't know. Its only when I have knowledge of that surfer, either a personal relationship or appreciation of work that that surfer has done, that I feel that something less than good has happened. Most likely the surfer dude's mom is gonna be bummed though.
Since everything has gotta eat and everything has gotta die, somebody is always gonna draw the short straw.